Writing about Mikaela Shiffrin’s success would be getting boring—if her narrative arc weren’t continually getting more dramatic. Back at the Sochi Olympics, the story was how the then-18-year-old kept her nerve after flubbing a turn and won slalom gold. Later that year, it was how she’d mastered slalom, won her first World Cup giant slalom and might, someday, expand to the speed events. Last year, it was how she’d clinched the best overall title, making her only the third U.S. woman in history to do so.
How do you top that? Funny you ask, because you might have noticed … the Winter Olympics are, once again, almost upon us. And they’re coming just a time when Shiffrin seems to be becoming the best not only in slalom (check) or in the world (check), but, just maybe, one of the best skiers in history.
If it sounds like a stretch, I get it. Shiffrin is only 22. Skiing is an infamously unpredictable sport. She’s had a few great seasons, but anything could happen.
And yet. Some things to take into account:
First, her World Cup showing this season. So far, she’s started in 17 races. She’s landed a podium in 14 of them, and won 10 outright.
Let’s put that in context. You’ve probably heard of a certain Lindsey Vonn. You may also have heard that Vonn is chasing Ingemar Stenmark’s record of 86 World Cup career wins. Vonn has 78. That’s incredibly impressive. It’s nearly twice as many as Shiffrin, who has 41. But Vonn is 33; she might have another couple of years; Shiffrin could have a decade.
Not only does Shiffrin have time on her side, but she’s already blazed out of the gate faster than even the supremely talented Vonn. Shiffrin’s 41 World Cup wins dwarf Vonn’s numbers at the same age. (Shiffrin will turn 23 in March; when Vonn turned 23, she “only” had six World Cup wins.) When Vonn was Shiffrin’s age, she was grabbing a podium in one out of every three races. Shiffrin is nabbing four of five. Or look at their peaks: in 2011-12, her best season, Vonn took 12 victories in 37 races. This season Shiffrin’s already at 10, and it’s only halfway through the season.
It’s worth noting here that Shiffrin isn’t talking about any of this (or at least not to the media). She shies away from counting victories or admitting that she wants to break this or that record. Instead, she keeps the focus on her own abilities, her process, how each run feels. You can see it on her face. Even when she wins a run, even by a margin as big as a second or more, she’ll sometimes look almost disappointed. You can read on her face when she didn’t ski quite the way she wanted. The way she can.
Other times, she bubbles over. “I finally skied that the way I wanted to. I finally did it this year. I’m so happy,” she said in the finish after her gold at the 2017 World Championships slalom in St. Moritz.
“What do you mean finally? You do it in almost every race,” asked the perplexed reporter.
“No, it’s not the same,” she replied. “It’s only something that I can understand. But when I ski that way, I just, I can’t describe it. It’s amazing.”
Whether Shiffrin thinks about external outcomes or not (or if she’s just staying quiet because, with all of the comparisons between her and her teammate already flying around, to say she’s going for the same record would make for a serious ski-slope throwdown), the reality is that even if Vonn catches up to Stenmark, Shiffrin will be right on her heels.
It’s also worth noting that the women themselves aren’t keen on being compared. Back in 2014, Shiffrin told me she thought all of the attempts to pit them against each other were silly; they didn’t even run the same events. That seemed reasonable. After all, downhill, Vonn’s specialty, is as far from slalom as you can imagine. Slalom is tight turns and uber-fast feet, while downhill is a screaming schuss of such-big-turns-they’re-no-longer-turns down a near-vertical ice rink. Few athletes ever master both. Though it’s common to start technical and move to speed—Vonn being the most famous example—once the move is made, a skier doesn’t usually keep competing in every discipline. It’s too much.
And being great in all of them is almost impossible. One of the only skiers to ever excel in every event was Tina Maze, the all-around all-star from Slovenia. Even so, it took her a while to be super-competitive in the speed events. “I needed 10 years to be fast in speed,” Maze told me after her retirement last year. Plus as Maze pointed out, for every minute you spend training for slalom is a minute you’re not spending on downhill. And it’s exhausting. Maze once gave Shiffrin some advice: “Don’t do every event, ever. It’s too tiring.”
But Shiffrin may be ignoring Maze’s advice. The American raced two downhills this season; they were only her third and fourth downhill events on the World Cup circuit, ever. She made the podium both times—and won once.
You can see her hurtling through her winning ride, hitting 128 kmh, here:
Both downhills were at Lake Louise. Her history with the discipline is just too brief to know how that could translate to other courses. She certainly hasn’t gone all-in on downhill, at least yet: She skipped the season’s third downhill, in Austria this weekend. She’s also struggled to find her feet in the super-G, finishing anywhere from 29th to a super-respectable fourth in the 10 career super-Gs she’s done so far.
Still, the fact that she won her fourth career downhill should be making the speed women nervous. At the very least, it’s making those comparisons to Vonn a whole lot less silly.
For now, a record in overall wins remains far off in the future. A great deal could happen between now and then. But another record could happen much sooner. While most of the world only tunes into ski racing is during the Olympics, for skiers, there’s an even bigger prize on the line every year. That’s who clinches the overall title—basically, who performs best across all races, in every discipline, over the whole season. It’s a points-based system; the more you win, the more points you get.
And the world record for points was set by all-around all-star Tina Maze in 2013, who pulled in 2,414. (The previous record had been set by Hermann Maier, who had exactly 2,000 in 2000). Right now, Shiffrin has 1,381 points. We’re halfway through the World Cup calendar. There are still 18 races left to go, granted, and a number of them are in the speed events, not traditionally Shiffrin’s forte (though that may be changing). It’s still likely that, as she did last year, she’ll win the overall title. Then, Shiffrin topped out at an impressive 1,643 points. But this year? It isn’t inconceivable that Shiffrin could not only win the overall title, but beat Maze’s record. If she continues her winning streak, she almost certainly will.
Against all of this, the Olympics are not a detail, exactly, but they’re just one part of the glory that, at least right now, seems to be Shiffrin’s for the taking.
But let’s address the Olympics, because that’s why we’re all here, right? Her big-event stats are just about as impressive. In her first Olympics at Sochi, she started in two races and won gold in one. Then there are the World Championships, which are the “other” Olympics of ski racing; the event, which is separate from the World Cup tour, is held once every two years. She’s participated in three of them, made six starts, and bagged three golds and one runner-up. (Last year, when she grabbed gold in slalom and silver in GS, was an especially shiny season.)
It goes without saying that if Shiffrin can ski the way she has been on the World Cup circuit in Pyeongchang, she’ll be a shoo-in to win the slalom, and likely also the G.S. She’ll also be a serious contender for the combined, which is the awkward marriage of a slalom and a downhill. And even though she said it wasn’t in the cards just a few months ago, it’s possible she could enter downhill and super-G.
If all of this makes Shiffrin seem pretty precocious for a 22-year-old, you’re right. From the moment she burst onto the international ski scene, she wasn’t just fast for a youngster—she’s had an almost preternatural ability to ride right at the edge of her risk, pushing herself to turn sooner, angle more and take a closer line than her rivals, all while making it look easy. Take her performance in Zagreb this year.
It’s a tough slalom course: long, at 71 gates, and with the steep coming right at the end. You can’t tell that by watching Shiffrin, who makes it look easy the whole way down. Look at the way she practically dances through the flush, a combination of gates that change the course’s rhythm and temporarily make the line straighter, at 0:41. Freeze-frame at 0:52, though, and you can see it’s anything but effortless. She’s over so far, her inside arm is almost touching the snow. But she’s still forward, aggressive, turning well above the gate, never losing focus or form.
Those early turns, by the way, are trademark Shiffrin. The reason turning high above the gate is such a hallmark of top-notch racing is simple: Turn too low, or “get late” in skier’s lingo, and you have to throw yourself across the hill to avoid missing the next turn, scrubbing speed and losing rhythm.
Shiffrin’s mastered this. You can see it in the parallel slalom that she ran on December 20. Parallel events, a relatively new addition to the World Cup calendar, are a somewhat gimmicky attempt to up the entertainment ante of ski racing. But there’s one thing they’re good for: spotting the difference in technique between two skiers. Here’s Shiffrin versus one of her closest rivals, Slovakian Petra Vlhová, the only skier to beat Shiffrin in a slalom this season:
The two are virtually indistinguishable for much of the course. (In fact, Shiffrin’s mom has said of Vlhová before, “Petra skis more like Mikaela more than Mikaela skis like Mikaela.”) But at 0:53, Shiffrin ekes out a turn just slightly ahead of her rival: She gets both skis facing into the next turn a millisecond ahead of Vlhová. (Try stop-starting the video to catch it.) By 0:56, just a couple of turns down, she’s built on that slight advantage, already coming out of the turn before Vlhová has finished it. Freeze-frame at 0:57, and you can see that while Vlhová is finishing her turn, her skis still pointed across the hill away from the next gate, Shiffrin is into her next one, bombing right for the red gate. We’re talking literal milliseconds. Shiffrin scrapes just 0.04 second on Vlhová. But in the knife-edge margins of racing, that’s all you need.
Of course, none of this is ability is, in fact, preternatural: It’s practice. Shiffrin once told me that even as a teenager, she never free-skied—on a powder day, when her buddies were playing in the snow, she’d choose gates—and she recently echoed this in New Yorker story where she said she works on her turns even when going from finish line to chairlift. Because of that, even while she’s younger than most of the other athletes, she estimates she’s probably had more genuine practice time than most.
The one constant in the world of ski racing is that you can’t really make predictions. That is why the caveat, for any of these records or Olympic medals, is always “if Shiffrin keeps skiing like this.” Each course, and each set of conditions, is unique. It’s not at all unusual for a racer to podium one week and then come in 10th or 20th or even crash in the same discipline the next.
That kind of inconsistency isn’t typical for Shiffrin, though, particularly in the slalom and GS. Last year, she won seven of 10 slaloms and podiumed in two others. Her GS, while not as consistent as she’d have liked, never dipped below sixth. The response to her performance in the Zagreb slalom a year ago says it all: When she got bounced off rhythm and was thrown out of the course, the Eurosport announcer practically crowed with surprised excitement. “Rare Mikaela Shiffrin mistake throws Zagreb World Cup slalom wide open,” read the headline. It was her first slalom DNF since 2012.
Something else to remember about Shiffrin, particularly if she doesn’t nail a first run, is that being the underdog almost always fires her up. Five times now she’s been in second place after her first run, and five times, she’s come back so hard in the second run that she’s won.
The recent slalom in Flachau is a classic example. Check out her first run in the video here (Shiffrin starts at 9:35):
She’s classic, smooth Shiffrin, but she’s holding onto each turn for a millisecond too long, something that catches up with her on the turn at 9:51, when she finishes too low and has to scramble to recover in time to catch the next turn.
Now go to 9:38, and compare it to a turn at the same part of the hill on her second run here, at 0:35 here:
On the first run, she’s standing up straighter; on her second, she’s compressing her knees so much that her hip is almost skimming the ground. As you watch her throughout that second run, you can see that she’s not only more aggressive, but more dynamic. Each turn is practically boomeranging her around the gate. She’s fired up, and it shows. After trailing Bernadette Schild by 0.37 of a second on her first run, she beat her by 1.31 seconds on the second run.
But Shiffrin isn’t unbeatable, even in her favored events. Anxiety can be a particular killer. Her nerves on the high-pressure home turf of Killington in 2016, the first time the World Cup tour had returned to New England in 25 years, landed her a disappointing fifth in the giant slalom. She still won the slalom the next day. Even so, she wound up consulting with a sport psychologist.
As the Olympics approach, that’s one unknown. When she won gold in Sochi, hardly anyone outside of the ski racing world knew who she was. Things are different now. People recognize her on the street. It’s not impossible to think that that might tense her up.
And there’s always the looming specter of injury. Shiffrin’s mother told me once that she almost never crashes or gets hurt. But it was only a matter of time, and that time came in December 2015, when Shiffrin partly tore her MCL when she crashed in training. Even that didn’t sideline her for long: Instead of sitting out the whole season, Shiffrin returned that February. She won her first race back.
I shouldn’t make predictions, but I will anyway. If I were a betting woman, I’d say Shiffrin will be the one to beat both in the Olympics and for the overall this season. And if things keep going her way, her legacy will be much bigger even than that.
Journalist and editor Amanda Ruggeri writes for publications including the BBC, The Globe and Mail, and The New York Times. After growing up skiing in Vermont and learning to race on a tiny hill in Connecticut, she now lives in London, where the snow is rare but the Alps are close. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.